Stop-go saving the plant

The government needs to follow London's example and make going green affordable

If you have ever fancied the idea of getting a government grant to help you put a wind turbine, solar panel or wood-burning stove in your house, then by the time you read this it will probably be too late – for this month at least.

The Low Carbon Buildings Programme was set up by the DTI last year to boost the take-up of renewable energy technologies on houses and community buildings, by giving away grants of up to 50 percent towards the cost of installation. £80 million was committed to the programme in total, but initially just £6.5 million to the household part of the scheme, and this was tapered over three years to stop in 2009.

Even without being properly promoted, the LCBP grants have already proved much more popular than funds allowed. When the £3.5m originally set aside for 2006/7 ran out after just six months at the end of October, the then Energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, responded by shifting another £6.2 million into the household pot from elsewhere in the programme.

Despite howls from the renewable energy industry, who had already suffered a hiatus of several months at the start of the year while thrifty householders bided their time between the end of the previous ‘Clear Skies’ scheme and the start of the LCBP, the DTI decided to divide the new money into monthly rations. They said the move was to make sure the grants lasted to the end of the scheme, but it has proved a disastrous strategy.

With just half a million pounds to go around each month, the money ran out on 20 December, 12 January and then, last month, applicants logging onto the LCBP website were told to ‘try again next time’ before noon on the first day of February.

So, we’re predicting even worse this month, and the Greens have issued a plea to the government to boost the fund for March and then do something to sort out some real incentives for renewable power in the budget in three weeks’ time. My previous blog about the benefits of feed-in tariffs shows how the pay-back period for renewables can be dramatically cut, but making it possible for ordinary households to afford the up-front costs is just as important - if it isn’t going to be only the rich few taking advantage of the benefits.

The German government has got the right mix of policies – as well as setting feed-in tariffs, low cost loans are being handed out at the rate of more than a billion pounds a year. If we can create a scheme to force unwilling students to take out index-linked loans to pay for their education, we can certainly organise something similar to help the millions of willing people out there save the planet.

All this thrashing around by central government is in sharp contrast to our regional government here in London. Greens are so impressed with Mayor Ken Livingstone’s new Climate Change Action Plan that I took part in the press launch this Tuesday and even wrote a foreword for the 232-page document.

The plan aims to cut London’s emissions by 20 million tonnes of carbon a year by 2025. Many smaller measures, such as switching off lights or powering the tube with renewable energy, will contribute to these reductions.

But my two favourite ideas will also bring some of the biggest reductions. The first is decentralising our energy supply, so that a quarter of our electricity is moved off the national grid in 20 years’ time. The second is a crash programme of home insulation, lining lofts and filling the millions of cavity walls still losing heat throughout the capital.

This will be provided cut-price to everyone and completely free to pensioners and people on benefits. The average household will not only be much greener, but will also save £300 per year on its bills.

Of course, the Green Party would be keen on the plan, seeing as most of the measures in it have been prompted by our London Assembly members’ work with the Mayor.

Since 2004, they have used their voting clout over the Mayor’s annual budget to add more and more green measures to his plans, so that this year more than £150 million will be spent on things to help Londoners live more lightly on the planet, and most of these things are key parts of the action plan.

It’s very appropriate that London should be the city taking the lead on this. We are one of the most vulnerable cities to climate change worldwide, with nearly a million of us already living below high tide level, and the Thames Barrier is being raised more often than ever before.

A year before hurricane Katrina, Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist warned that, ‘cities like London, New York and New Orleans would be the first to go’ as the world warms up.

However, there is a big hole running right through the London action plan – and it’s labeled ‘central government action’. There’s only so much Londoners can do on our own and, to achieve the 60 percent cuts science tells us we need by 2025, a further 13 million tonnes a year needs to be saved with measures we don’t control.

Aviation already causes 34 percent of London’s total emissions (and that’s just counting the planes that take off from City and Heathrow airports, not the flights home or any that go from Gatwick or Stansted) so without a national change of heart on airport expansion, we will never make the targets.

Similarly, measures to encourage behaviour change, get us into cleaner cars and bring us cleaner electricity can only go so far without the same kind of vision from national government. Over to you, Gordon – we’re waiting!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.